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How To Not Be Fooled By Food Labels

Do you ever find yourself reaching for the box of cereal that states “all-natural” only to see that the nutrition label has a laundry list of ingredients you can’t pronounce?

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Misleading food claims

Do you ever find yourself reaching for the box of cereal that states “all-natural” only to see that the nutrition label has a laundry list of ingredients you can’t pronounce? Food labeling can be tricky and consumers often get fooled by misleading claims. With shoppers more health-conscious now than ever, food marketing is getting clever. Don’t be misled by the most common label claims and take these actionable steps to out-smart food companies at the grocery store.

Sugar-free and low-sugar

How sweet it is that products are going low-carb with these sugary claims to suit the trendiest of diets. Low on sugar often means higher in fat and higher in calories. Sugar-free items are typically sweetened with non-caloric sweeteners like sucralose, stevia, and sugar alcohols which affect everyone differently (hint: sugar alcohols don’t like to be digested and cause bloating for most people).

No added sugar

Just because a product doesn’t have any added sugars, doesn’t mean it’s low in total sugar. The new nutrition label requires “added sugars” to be listed. Try to stick to products that have minimal added sugars and are sweetened with whole fruits like dates or bananas. Keep in mind we still need to be cautious of our overall daily intake of sugar regardless of the source (women should aim for no more than 25 grams and no more than 36 grams per day for men).


The Food & Drug Administration (FDA) does not have a true definition for the term “natural,” which means it can be extremely misleading. Technically, it would refer to ingredients that are not artificial or synthetic (like food color additives). Natural is a fresh apple you can bite into, but companies like to claim their food is “natural” if at one point during the processing there was a fresh apple manipulated into a food product.

Dietitian’s Tip: Whole foods like fresh fruits and vegetables don’t need any packaging claims. They are truly natural and speak for themselves!


The term organic refers to how the ingredient or food is grown, harvested, or raised. It is not a statement of how healthy the food is. For example, the claim “made with organic ingredients” may have organic sugar or organic chocolate chips.


It might sound like it’s healthy, but this term only means the food is made with more than one grain. Those grains could be whole grains or refined grains. They could be first on the ingredient list or they could be last on the list. Instead of buying multigrain items, choose those that say “whole grain.”

Light or “Lite”

Light foods (also think of fat-free or low-fat foods) either have fewer calories or fat than the original food product. To make these foods, there is typically more sugar or salt to compensate for the flavor. If you’re looking for fewer calories, consider making your own version of, say, salad dressing. Otherwise, just be prepared for a watered-down store variation.


Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye that can cause mild to severe allergic reactions and digestive discomfort for some populations. Removing gluten from items doesn’t always make them “healthier,” per se, as most processed gluten-free items are packed with extra fat and sugar. So, gluten-free sandwich bread is still highly processed store-bought bread. But, brown rice is naturally gluten-free and contains the whole grain full of vitamins and minerals.

The bottom line on food labels

Bottom line: Don’t judge a food by its cover. Food labels tell a better story. But, if you’re truly motivated to making the “healthier” choice, cook these foods for yourself. No claims or labels are needed on a homemade granola bar!

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Actionable Steps


Ignore the labels on the front and go straight to the back label

That’s just it. Don’t even bother with the front of the package. This is where food companies try to grab your attention with misleading claims. The full story is on the back with the food label and ingredient list.


Read the nutrition label

The front might say “only 5g of sugar per serving,” but the label says a serving is one bite of cookie and it takes four bites to finish the cookie. That’s 20 grams of sugar total (FYI, the daily limit for sugar is 25 grams for women and 36 grams for men). The food label will tell you the whole story with serving size, types of fat, sodium, dietary fiber, added sugars, protein, and key vitamins and minerals (the real winners). Read up on the new food label here by the Food and Drug Administration.


Read the ingredient list

Ingredients are listed from the highest to lowest amount. That means the first couple of ingredients listed are the bulk of the food. If the first three ingredients include an added sugar source (like syrups, cane sugar, glucose, and more), a refined grain (such as white flour), or hydrogenated oil, then kick this food to the curb and consider another option. Also, try to avoid foods with a long list of ingredients. Stick to those with a short list and made with whole foods.


Make decisions before going to the store and stick to what you know

If you have a grocery list prepared ahead of time, you’ll be less likely to peruse new items with eye-catching claims. Stick to the items you’re familiar with that you know work for you.


Read the longer version

To learn more, read these articles reviewed by our professionals: Are You Being Fooled by Food Labels by BBC Food, How to Read Food Labels Without Being Tricked by Heathline, Don’t Get Tricked By Food Marketers by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, and Reading the Nutrition Label by McKel Kooienga, MS, RDN, LDN.

About the Author

shannon costello

Shannon Costello

Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN)

Shannon is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN), Health Coach, Certified Personal Trainer, and Group Fitness Instructor with over 5 years of experience working in Corporate Wellness specializing in overall health, nutrition, and fitness. Throughout her journey to becoming an RDN, she grew her passion for culinary nutrition by teaching and developing hands-on cooking classes for all ages in the community.
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